PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Government officials vastly undercounted the death toll among Florida nursing home residents after the destruction of Hurricane Irma in 2017, according to new research led by a Brown University scholar who studies disaster management in the long-term care industry.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a total of 123 deaths statewide linked to the Category 4 storm, which made landfall in the Florida Keys with winds over 130 mph. The CDC number was based on death certificate data from across the entire state — including the deaths of 14 residents in a Broward County nursing home that lost power for its air conditioning system after the storm.
The new study — published on Tuesday, Oct. 6, in JAMA Network Open — compared deaths at nursing homes across Florida in the 30 days after Irma to those reported over the same period in 2015, when no hurricanes occurred in the state. It found the actual death toll is more than double the CDC number considering the nursing home population alone.
Dr. David Dosa — an associate professor of medicine and of health services, policy and practice at Brown who led the study with colleagues from Brown and the University of South Florida in Tampa — identified an additional 139 deaths among Florida nursing home residents linked to Irma. Extending the timeframe to 90 days after Irma, they counted an additional 433 deaths.
“Our results suggest that this wasn’t an isolated phenomenon at one or two nursing homes,” Dosa said. “This occurred across the state.”
The deaths occurred primarily among those living for at least 90 days in a nursing home, a population in which residents are often physically frail or cognitively impaired. They did not occur among short-stay skilled nursing home residents, who make up one-third of nursing home populations and are typically recuperating from illness or surgery.